Kentucky picked the right time to peak

HOUSTON -- John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe have been getting teased this week.

That’s what Kentucky coach John Calipari has heard from his one-and-done players from last season who came close, but missed out on the Final Four -- unlike this current Wildcats team.

“I think somebody told me that DeMarcus said, ‘We’d kill those guys [West Virginia] if we played them again,’” Calipari said, referring to last year‘s loss in the Elite Eight. “They have it in their craw that game, but that’s over.

“This is a different team, and I’m proud of them and what they’re doing and really enjoyed the ride. This team went from me dragging them to them dragging me.”

Few believed Calipari could get to the Final Four with this particular Kentucky team. Last season’s group had five future first-round NBA draft picks. Next season's team will have the top recruiting class in the nation, thought to be one of the finest in years.

These Wildcats? They're comprised of promising freshmen and holdovers, needing time to bond. After three lottery picks left and the NCAA ruling that freshman phenom Enes Kanter was permanently ineligible, the team went through growing pains before managing to peak in March. They won the SEC tournament and reached the program’s first Final Four in 13 years.

Kentucky showed off its talent early with freshman Terrence Jones becoming the breakout star of the Maui Invitational, but didn’t form its identity until late in the season. It was a team that struggled on the road -- remember that 1-6 road start in the SEC? -- and struggled to close out tight games.

“One word to describe it is 'toughness,'” UK guard DeAndre Liggins said. “In the road losses we were not tough. We were not tough enough to close games out.”

After losses at Ole Miss and Arkansas, the Wildcats regrouped.

“Coach called me in and wanted me to make sacrifices to get more people involved,” Jones said. “He was trying to get us to do it all together. We all agreed to do that. Since then, it has been better for us as a team.

“We had to get more players involved. It just helped a lot.”

A players-only meeting was held as well, and Calipari is glad it did because it brought young and old together.

“Normally those meetings don’t do anything,” Calipari said. “But I think they wanted to understand each other. The veterans talked about committing to what they had to do. The young kids committed to what they had to do. I think they just came together.”

After the Arkansas loss on Feb. 23, Kentucky knocked off Florida and Vanderbilt, both ranked teams, to begin its run of 10 straight wins. It was junior Darius Miller who was MVP of the SEC tournament. Freshman Brandon Knight was named the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player. And surprising senior Josh Harrellson has been scoring in double-digits for the entire tournament, averaging 14.8 points and nine rebounds.

“It’s a tough road, but all of us kept fighting,” Miller said. “All of us put a lot of trust in ourselves. It feels great to be here.”

Said Harrellson: “Kentucky basketball has such a good following, and our fans expect us to get here every year. It can be tough, but it is great to have fans that expect that from your program every year. We are just so happy to be back here and have Kentucky back on top.”